Mining for carrots

It’s hard to believe that carrots are roots. How can anything that burrows 6 to 8 inches down in the dark earth be so bright, so filled with sunlight? Ivy Rose, my gardener granddaughter, says digging up carrots is like mining for gold.

I heartily agree. Organically grown carrots are an excellent investment for a low-budget, low-effort home garden like mine. A minimum of seed, space and labor produces handsome yields and months of the incomparable taste of carrots just harvested from a home garden — as locally grown as you can get.

Carrots also provide high-quality nutrition. One medium carrot can supply more than the daily requirement of vitamin A — a natural preventive medicine for eyes, skin, hair and immune system alike. Beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, protects against cancer and heart attacks.

Why anyone would want to compromise these remarkable health benefits by using possibly carcinogenic chemicals to grow carrots is incomprehensible to me, especially since they’re so easy to cultivate organically. Carrots were one of the first organic crops to be marketed, because early research showed that carrot roots soak up and concentrate chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Organic carrots have since become a hallmark of sustainable agriculture.

In winter, when lack of sunlight shuts down my garden, I buy lots of organic carrots, but they don’t have that fresh, homegrown flavor. The most delicious kinds of carrots are shorter than the mass-produced varieties and too brittle for mechanical harvesting. Long storage during transcontinental transit further diminishes both the taste and the nutritional value of market stock. If an organic market gardener in my area specialized in winter carrots, I’d be a faithful customer.

The main requirement for successfully cultivating organic carrots is 8 to 10 inches of soft, “sweet” (6.5 to 7 pH) soil. I let nature do most of the work of creating these conditions in my garden. My part in the process is fashioning an ideal habitat for countless decomposers — from worms to microorganisms — by raising my beds and keeping them covered, when nothing is growing in them, with a mulch of organic materials such as hay, dead leaves, grass clippings, even kitchen garbage. The decomposers finish the job, gradually transforming my Appalachian clay hardpan into “loam, sweet loam” (to quote the sampler Ivy Rose embroidered for my birthday). Soil-building takes time, but — as Ivy Rose observes — organic gardeners are as patient as snails. For several years I grew shallow-rooted crops in my slowly mellowing raised beds. Raised beds prevent soil compaction and provide excellent drainage. Mulch keeps the soil cool and damp, which sweetens the carrots as they mature and stimulates their growth.

My carrot beds are narrow — no more than 3 feet wide — to make thinning, weeding and harvesting easy. I wait three years before planting carrots in the same bed again, and I try to rotate them to where heavy feeders such as broccoli grew the year before. I avoid planting carrots near dill, which companion-plant expert Ivy Rose claims could inhibit their growth.

I prepare my carrot beds in the fall to minimize soil disturbance at planting time and to avoid working wet soil in spring, which creates clods and poor soil structure. First I re-raise the beds, which will have collapsed during the spring/summer growing season. At the same time, I dig in a layer of well-composted leaves, including nitrogen-rich comfrey foliage. I might add a little organic cottonseed or alfalfa meal and rock phosphate, if none has been applied for several years. Then I sprinkle on some organic cornmeal to encourage worms — those living fertilizer factories — to take up residence. Worm castings are the only manure I use with root crops. Finally, I blanket the whole bed with hay mulch.

I’ve had good luck with Nantes and Chantenay carrots as well as Touchon, Royal Chantenay and Scarlet Nantes, all of which taste delectable and are 5 to 7 inches long. I experiment with a new kind of carrot every year. This year’s guinea pig is Ingot, an 8-inch Nantes variety that Ivy Rose wheedled me into ordering after she discovered that gold is shaped into ingots for shipping and storage. She says Ingot should be a brighter orange than other varieties because it contains twice as much carotene.

I sow carrot seed in mid-April and early May in my econiche 2,500 feet up in the Southern Appalachians. Carrots won’t germinate in soil that’s too cold or too hot. In early March, I rake most of the mulch off the top of the bed to warm it up for a month in the intensifying spring sunlight. When I’m ready to plant, I pick out any small rocks and use a trowel to mix ashes from our wood stove into the top few inches of soil. Then I plunge my garden fork in here and there as far as the top of the tines and gently rock it back and forth to loosen and aerate the soil (which I never turn). If I run into a rock, I coax it out with the trowel. After raking the soil smooth, I make quarter-inch-deep furrows 2 to 3 inches apart, sprinkle carrot seeds into them, and cover the seeds with a quarter-inch of soil or compost. Finally, to protect against erosion, I cover the planted area with the oldest, driest, most crumbly hay mulch I have available, pat everything down, and gently water.

The secret of successful carrot-seed germination, which takes at least 10 days, is never letting the bed dry out. Some experts suggest laying boards over the planted area to keep it moist, but I suspect that this method invites pests, and I’d rather take a few minutes twice a day to sprinkle the bed, if it hasn’t rained, than remember to check under boards.

When the seedlings are about 3 inches tall and their roots are starting to turn orange, I thin the plants so they’re 2 to 3 inches apart. Thinning is important if you want to produce a blue-ribbon carrot crop. Ivy Rose and I take turns using manicure scissors to snip unwanted seedlings off at soil level, so we don’t disturb the roots of the plants left to grow. We also pluck out small weeds that may be gaining a roothold. As the carrots grow, their dense foliage will provide a living mulch and shade out most weeds. I love the feathery, aromatic carrot greens, which make fabulous soup stock. And so, reports Ivy Rose, did the ancient Greeks, who used them in corsages some 2,000 years ago.

Unfortunately, rabbits, who mostly ignore my crops, also fancy carrot foliage as soon as it starts to bush out, so after thinning, I fence the bed with 3-foot-high chicken wire held in place by 4-foot stakes. I loosely fasten together a few of the end strands of wire, so I can easily open up the fencing when I want to weed or harvest. This solution seems to baffle the most determined bunnies. The only other tending I do is watering during dry spells, but growing carrots does require patience, since they take two to three months to mature.

Harvesting is easy — if a mulch has kept the soil soft. Ivy Rose loves plunging her trowel straight down all around those awesome taproots to loosen them. She exposes their tops and wriggles them, gleaming, from the dark soil. And if it’s the season’s first harvest, she’s likely to shout: “There’s gold in this here bed, Gran! We’ve struck it rich!”

My sentiments exactly. A bonanza of carrots is truly a treasure for the home gardener.

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